Creating certainty when you’re feeling uncertain

I was at the grocery store the other day and the woman at the checkout asked me, “How long do you think this [coronavirus] is going to go on?”

This is a common question I have received during this time with COVID-19. Ultimately, most of us are wondering how to resolve this feeling of uncertainty.

The truth is, it may never go away completely. (What if that was okay?)

However, there are some things that we can do to help ease the feeling of uncertainty, especially if it has been distracting and causing us anxiety. I’ll cover the simplest approach today.

If you have limited time, I suggest you just focus on this one thing you can do. If you’re interested to think about it more deeply, read on.

When I talk about uncertainty here, I’m not talking about the transient uncertainty that indicates we need to gather information.

 

Take the example of the first day of being an intern. You had a general knowledge of things, but there were a lot of unknowns and a lot at stake. As a result, you took extra time, you double-checked things, you used checklists, you talked to your senior and attendings, you stayed late if needed. All of that increased awareness and caution in that situation was protective. Uncertainty in that situation though was limited to that experience. Though we remained diligent as we gained skills and knowledge, that degree of hyperattention to the situation slowly diminished as we advanced through residency and became attendings.

 

Here I am talking about the ongoing uncertainty as our minds imagine the unknowns of our future, the uncertainty that causes us to feel anxious and paralyzed.

This is the key that I want to highlight– the idea that it’s our constant attention to the future that perpetuates the feeling of paralyzing uncertainty. If you want to experience less of it, focus on the present. Bring yourself back to what is happening right now. Define what you do know. All that we can know for sure (the way our human mind perceives it at least) is what is happening right now. Make a list of all the things you know are for certain, in this moment. If you are feeling a certain way, note that sensation in the body and ask yourself what thought in your mind was causing it. Acknowledge that.

This is the first step to addressing the uncertainty. 

What is uncertainty?

Uncertainty is an unsettled feeling about our future that comes from an idea in our minds: that we don’t know all of the potential outcome(s) in a situation, and that we don’t know the exact probabilities of each of those outcomes.

When I state it that way, it makes me say, “So what then?”, because think about all the uncertainty that we have in our lives usually. We just don’t focus on it and think about it all the time.

Here’s why it matters

Survival concerns, which are triggered by situations like COVID-19, direct us to stay safe and alive. Maybe we want some additional comforts and pleasures too.

However, we view uncertainty as a bad thing, as we see it as a barrier to having fulfilled needs and desires, which we believe are necessary to feel secure and in control. This is our ultimate goal – to feel secure and in control. Uncertainty can further sabotage us, as we get stuck or act with caution beyond the point of being self-protective.

Ultimately, being alive, not being sick, traveling in the community without social isolation, traveling without restrictions, kids going to school, going out to eat, etc.— these are all circumstances. Remember, circumstances don’t cause us to feel secure and in control, our thoughts and beliefs do.

Therefore, another way of working with uncertainty is to not view it as an ongoing sign of threat.

Recognize it’s a feeling that comes from a thought in your mind, and honestly ask yourself if there is a real problem, or if you are creating a problem in your mind alone. Is it worth it to you to spend time worrying about something that could possibly happen, when what is actually happening is just fine?

Some helpful questions you can ask yourself?

  1. Why have I decided that it is so important for me to know what will happen?
  2. How can I create what I want for my future, based on the certain knowledge I have now?
  3. What would it look like to simultaneously live with uncertainty and confidence in my ability to thrive through this experience?

 

When the curriculum gets tough…

The scenario –

During this time when children are home from school due to COVID-19, many parents are working from home as well and wondering how to stay productive as both workers and parents. Parents are also placing a lot of pressure on themselves to keep the kids on track.

The situation is not anything most of us (or any of us) have experienced before, especially for the duration we anticipate, yet we somehow want to do it all. We are trying to create the same result we had before – keeping up the same level of job productivity working from home, while providing the kids with a similar learning experience and performance. It certainly may be possible, but it redefining our goals, including what we want to see for ourselves and our families, may be helpful in the given circumstances. By deciding what is most important to us now, and then aligning the available resources (including time, money, physical/mental/emotional energy) toward our goals, we can find more fulfillment.

It also may help focus on the idea of “sufficiency” – the idea of “enough”. That we are enough. That what we are doing is enough. That what are children is doing enough. If we do our best, we can choose to see that as enough. It usually is.

Here’s an example: Kids are at home from school while you are working from home, due to stay-at-home recommendations during COVID-19. The schools send guidance to you and/or your kids through email.

Thoughts that may come up for you:
“What I’m doing for my kids now might affect them in the long-term.”

“There isn’t enough structure.”
“I don’t want to get overly involved.”
“There is too much time that could easily be wasted.”

 

Approaches that can help:

  • Reframing: If you are thinking that there is a lack of structure, question that thought. How might it be that the opposite is true? Can believing that there is structure help open up your mind to how you can help your children more?
  • Letting go of scarcity: Notice the scarcity (idea of “not enough”) in the above thoughts.
    • I’m not doing enough to keep them on track.
    • There’s not enough structure.
    • The kids aren’t doing enough.
  • Keeping things light: What if the things that we saw as problems weren’t really problems? Example – What if it might be okay that the kids don’t spend their whole day on schoolwork or “productive” activity? Could you look at this situation playfully or laugh at it? We don’t really have to allow the kids to go the whole day without direction. However, letting go of the belief that lack of perceived structure is bad may let us approach our kids from a calmer space. They might then be more responsive to our suggestions. We’ll be more at ease.

 

In the months of April and May 2020, I’m offering free group coaching for physicians and health professionals on Tuesday evenings (EST time zone). Interested? Email me at info@physicianwellnesscoaching.com to join my email list and get the registration link. 

How to Gain Control of Media Consumption During COVID-19

Overconsumption of Information Relating to COVID-19 (and in general)

The problem –

It’s normal these days to be consumed by COVID-19 news, scientific updates, and social media posts. Our brains are wired to look for threats and problems, and we are constantly bombarded with ideas that create a sense of fear and anxiety. So, we look for solutions by trying to keep up with the constant flow of information. This behavior can also turn into an unproductive distraction, when we feel out of control of our situations.

What happens as a result?

  • We become further absorbed in all the information.
  • Things appear worse in our minds than they really are.
  • We are less effective at creating solutions to the problem we see with COVID-19, and less effective at solving the problems we’re good at solving.

The solutions can include –

  • Identifying the thoughts and beliefs that are creating feelings of fear, anxiety, worry, sense of being out of control, etc. that are driving the unproductive behavior.
  • Acknowledging your current experience that is causing you suffering and accept that it is okay and normal to feel this way. Process what is going on for you.
  • Deciding if and when you are ready to shift to create a new outcome – e.g. one of controlled deliberate consumption of information with the purpose of putting it to some use (e.g. to stay appropriately informed on necessary updates, to aide decision-making, etc.). You also aim to create a situation where you show up doing your best work, because that’s what the world needs right now. You decide what it means to do your best work.
  • Action items such as: creating an intention to control consumption of media, choosing sources more carefully, setting limits to consumption, focusing on priorities, having times that media is off-limits.
  • Reframing your perspective of the situation to create feelings that help you stay in-line with the above action items.

Example thought: I can learn what I need to learn and continue to focus on contributing through my strengths and other interests.

Feelings this thought may create: calm, excited, motivated, in control

——
Join my e-mail list to find out about free group coaching that I am offering weekly to physicians and other health professionals.

This is an opportunity to learn and grow.

COVID-19 is a reality in our lives and many people, myself included, have had to learn how to manage more intense emotions, especially negative emotions.

Not only that, but it may seem for some that life is on hold, that we have to wait for all of this to be over for life to go on.

But, life is happening right now.

I want to show you that even though our life circumstances have changed, life is continuing to go on.

We have to continue on and make this experience a part of our life story.

We get to decide what our attitudes will be.

We get to decide if we show up with compassion, love, and patience.

We get to decide what can be created through all of this..

COVID-19 is a circumstance, one that is helping to bring to the surface so many of the things that challenged us before, now in a more obvious or intense way.

This makes it the perfect time to understand ourselves and to use this as an opportunity for growth.

I plan to regularly post here the lessons learned as I reflect on coaching sessions and conversations I’ve had. I will focus on those topics that seem to be a common theme among physicians and parents.

We can all learn from each other.

When Circumstances Change

Our circumstances have changed in the last several weeks.

Our circumstances are changing.

Our circumstances will be different moving forward.

In the last several weeks, as the situation with COVID-19 has quickly escalated, to say that it has grabbed our attention is an understatement for most.

As I have observed others and our own family, I have seen the impact on both an emotional and practical level.

There have been plenty of updates, media reports, social media discussions, and private conversations on the topic.

Many have tried to figure out how to stay informed, while not getting consumed by it all.

I know this has been the case for me.

(If you have been consumed and distracted by all the COVID-19 conversation, there is no shame in it. It might even be necessary for a little while as you process what is happening. But be aware of your thoughts and recognize that you ultimately are in complete control of your experience. This is a good thing.)

I understand and appreciate the gravity of the situation and want to offer you a couple questions that I have been asking myself.

How will I respond appropriately and responsibly to what is going on with COVID-19, while also maintaining my commitment to my highest priorities?

How do I continue to be in the world, to create and bring my visions to life, with everything that is going on?

I ask these questions because right now I am still processing.

I am working to hold space for myself to experience the challenging emotions of disappointment, sadness, frustration, and uncertainty in a normal, human way.

At the same time, I believe that I, and we all, have a capacity to continually evolve ourselves and to create great things in the world, no matter what is happening outside of us.

I continue to believe that even when times are challenging, continuing to do what we do best (even when it may not seem directly applicable to the situation) may very well be the contribution that is needed.

I believe that we each have a special skill or trait that can be applied in novel situations in order to make the world better.

I am already seeing this happen as I read about the innovation and resourcefulness of individuals and companies who are trying to solve the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) shortage.

I see this happen as businesses offer products and services in support of those on the front lines in the medical community.

I see and hear about families enjoying time together, enjoying the simple daily pleasures provided to us through our current situation, which may have never otherwise been experienced.

Yes, in every life situation we can choose to see the good and the bad.

It is very possible to have this balanced view.

Even now.

This is what can help us to open up to what is possible.

In uncommon circumstances, such as what we are experiencing with COVID-19, the emotional range of what we experience can even provide us with a feeling of richness of life.

It is there for us to appreciate, if we so choose.

But only when we are ready.

If you are experiencing challenges during this time, know that this is a normal human experience, and that even through that, there is opportunity for learning and growth.

It’s possible to create a space in your life where you are allowed to think about the impact you want to make, the experiences you want to have, and the life you want to create in the context of – and maybe despite – everything going on around you.

Our circumstances have changed in the last several weeks.

Our circumstances are changing.

Our circumstances will be different moving forward.

Notice how these statements could be true regardless of whether COVID-19 is happening right now, or not.

What does that mean for you?

What will you create?

Wanting vs. Willingness

How often do you say, “I want to …”?

“I want to go to the gym more often.”

“I want to lose weight.”

“I want to get control over my schedule.

“I want to be more present with my family.”

“I want to get a new job.”

Choosing to “want to” can move us forward toward more desired outcomes when we are currently “not wanting to.”

It’s a step forward and it’s a beautiful way to allow yourself to explore the abundance of what you can create in your life.

But it can be easy to get stuck, allowing yourself to just want.

Wanting creates desire, a desire that may not be satisfied if you don’t actually take the steps to go after what you want. In this case, wanting can lead to disappointment.

Wanting may create short-lived results, as wanting is often associated with surface-level outcomes.

Example: “I want to go to the gym more.” How much more? For how long? How far does this mindset take you?

How can we reframe this then?

Willingness.

The Google definition of willingness: “ready, eager, or prepared to do something.”

It implies a deeper commitment.

Example: You may be willing to go to the gym too, but there is more energy behind the action – an indicator of aiming to create something greater: “I’m willing to create a healthy lifestyle.”

Willingness creates a feeling that is more expansive than just desire – to me, it creates a feeling of commitment.

When we have commitment, we are ready to take massive action. We are ready to redirect ourselves when we drift off course. We are open to seeing more possibilities of how we can achieve what we have set out to do. We have more self-confidence that we can remain in integrity. As a result, we see more sustained action, and results.

“I want to go to the gym more often” can become “I am willing to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

“I want to lose weight” is more powerfully captured in the statement “I am willing to honor my body by eating nutritious foods.”

“I want to get control over my schedule” on a deeper level means that “I am willing to stay in integrity with my priorities and values.”

“I want to be more present with my family” is more significant when stated as “I am willing to take responsibility for connecting with those in my life.”

“I want a new job” may create more transformation if restated as “I am willing to live to my fullest potential.”

  1. What are you currently wanting in your life?
  2. How is your “want” an indicator of a deeper commitment that you have?
  3. How can you reframe your “I want” statement into an “I’m willing to” statement?
  4. What is it exactly that you are willing to do to create the result you want?

Don’t Cut Your Time Short

A young woman in her 30s shared her goals with me recently and described how she felt an urgency “to do something soon”, because she was afraid that in ten years she would be past her prime productivity in life and not able to make the impact that she wanted.

 Have you worried that life is passing you by, and that pretty soon it will be too late to go after your dreams? Or that it won’t make a difference to commit to some positive change for yourself because the damage has already been done?

Have you had these thoughts before?

Are you thinking these thoughts now?

In every thought that we have, there is some truth, but there is also some untruth as well.

Creating an accurate view of the world requires us to use different mental models to create balanced perspectives. It also requires us to question our limiting views and beliefs, so we can shift into positive thinking that will be more productive for us.

True, it’s possible that some of our dreams and visions need to be executed over years, perhaps lifetimes. We may only get the outcomes we want through careful planning and execution, taking advantage of opportunity, and some luck.

True, sometimes life throws us surprises that cause us to shift course – for example, a geographic move, the impact of starting a family, a necessary change in career, changes in health, or death.

In the most basic way, we don’t have any direct control over those matters. Those are circumstances of our lives.

Remember, circumstances don’t create meaning. We do.

We have control over the way we choose to view the hands that we’ve been dealt.

We can decide ahead of time that any length of time that we get to be on this Earth is important.

We can choose to live the purpose we’ve each chosen (yes, you choose your purpose), to shift that when needed, and to find meaning in all aspects of our lives.

We can decide that it’s never too late, and that we have decades of meaningful, productive life ahead of us.

If life throws us a curveball, we decide how we will define things. What does it mean for something to be “meaningful” and what does it mean to be “productive”? What is enough? 

Exercising this deliberate control over our minds can help us to cultivate joy and appreciation right now.

It can help us live not from a place of urgency (e.g. “I have to…”) but rather from a place of agency (e.g. “I get to…” or “I decide to…”).

It can remind us that for as long as we are living, we are the ones that decide if the show is over.

So, let’s decide to not cut our time short.

Let’s decide to explore, be curious, and tap into all of the potential that we were meant to unleash in each chapter of our lives.

Let’s decide that we can make plans for decades of dreams fully lived, but live right now with mindfulness that let’s us love where we’re at.

Because the solution to living a regret-free life is not to just have done all that you wanted to do. The solution is to appreciate and love your life right now, for all that it is.

By defining the meaning and purpose of your life now, and living each moment with the energy that this creates, you can then not only create more of the life that you want, but importantly, love more the life that you already have.

Redeciding

Every decision we make is preceded by an emotion and an originating thought, which itself is a choice.

In every moment of our lives there is a choice to make, and in that agency, we have power.

We have the power to decide our attitudes, our beliefs, and our judgments, and the way they make us feel. We get to decide what to do next, and the results we create in our lives.

Part of the reason I think coaching is fun is that I help people think more clearly and deliberately.

In the past six weeks I’ve taken time to self-coach on decisions that I wanted to make too.

Actually, I would refer to some of them as “redecisions.” (In Googling this word, I came across a form of therapy called “Redecision Therapy”, but this is NOT what I am referring to.)

By redecision, I mean that I decided again that I wanted to maintain certain choices I had previously made. I did this by looking at my life again, this time with the lens of having had more life experience under my belt, with clarity and self-confidence guiding me instead of pressure and worry.

The outcomes were completely different.

I made redecisions in my personal life and relationships.

I made redecisions in my business about what practices and approaches I would keep, versus what needed to change.

When I redecided, that didn’t mean I wanted to create more of what I had already been experiencing.

Remember, the decision is just the first step of the “what” and “how”.

The meaning you apply to your circumstances and the way you choose to feel will ultimately be the driving forces that direct your decision into a result that matters to you.

The meaning and energy I brought to my circumstances this time around were completely different.

Then, I imagined what it would be like to create ANY result I wanted.

I’m giving myself space right now to imagine what that could be. I’m remaining patient and curious as I figure it all out.

A decision is a consequence of being determined to persuade yourself. Why not do it with powerful confidence?

It’s what gets you started on creating that result you want, and it’s always available to you.

So that you can take root, or, change course.

So that you can empower yourself.

What will you redecide today?

Looking into a new career? Here are three things you can do to start.

Here are 3 things you can do to start taking control of finding a fulfilling career.

1. Reflect on your recent career exploration and make a decision about what is next.

Consider all the possibilities of what is out there for you. Make a decision, for now at least, about how much time and energy you want to devote to exploring another career or side-gig. The sooner you make this decision, the less energy you will waste on things that aren’t important to you. Then, you can focus on enhancing happiness and the outcomes you want in your present life, whatever it contains. There is no right or wrong here, and I promise you that you can be happy either way. The question ultimately becomes, “What do I want to experience in my life?”

2. Make a full commitment to whatever you have chosen and love your reasons for your decision. Write down all the reasons why this is important to you. 

No matter what is next for you, having an amazing reason for why you are doing this for yourself will help you stay on track even when you aren’t motivated to do so, or even when it’s easier to stick with the familiar. 

For example, if you are choosing to move into a new career but are currently working in a different capacity, having a good “why” will make sure that you prioritize your new career. You’ll then be sure to carve out a minimum time each day or week to think about, and do things, to move forward in your new career. You will use a new lens with which to see each of the things you do in your life, and will understand how they help to shape and grow you for the new career you have chosen. 

If your recent exploration helped confirm for you that you want to stay in your current clinical or nonclinical position, that is great as well! Your commitment will help you to focus on finding solutions to optimize your experience of your current job.

No matter what you have chosen, when things feel hard, your mind is probably going to try to convince you to do the opposite. If you’re constantly putting yourself out there to learn about a new job opportunity, at some point your mind may convince you it’s better to stay put. Or, if you’ve chosen your current job, you may become distracted by the possibility of a change and something new. This is normal and okay, so I don’t want you to be surprised if and when it happens. Having a strong commitment to your decision will eliminate unnecessary confusion that distracts you from finding solutions and happiness on your chosen path. 

3. Make a plan for the very next thing you need to do. Identify any obstacles or barriers to executing on that first step, and devise strategies for how you will overcome them. Then, for each thing you need to do, put it on your calendar with a specific measurable goal in mind.

Taking the first step will give you the needed momentum to take subsequent steps. The challenge is often just taking that first step. If you can create a plan for how you’ll get it done, and then put it on your calendar, as long as you show up and do what you said you would, you’ll know it’s as good as done. Knowing you have a plan will enhance your self-confidence to make it happen. A plan will remove uncertainty about what to do next. Also, if you don’t follow your plan, you’ll have a very concrete experience to reflect on to understand what kind of thoughts got in your way. 

Playing The Game

Who would have thought that Chutes and Ladders, a game of chance, would have taught me something. 

 

My son received the game Chutes and Ladders this past year and has recently started enjoying playing it with me, either before he goes to daycare or at the end of the day before bedtime. 

 

I noticed feelings of impatience and boredom come over me this morning as we spun the spinner, again and again, but only to each find ourselves toward the bottom of the board, riding down the chutes, of which there are ten on the board, compared to nine ladders that advance one toward the finish. 

 

I observed that my son didn’t show the same impatience that I did. Interesting right?

 

He just kept spinning and spinning, and of course I didn’t refuse when he offered to spin for me.

 

As I watched our pieces jump across the board and slide down, I noticed how most of the chutes would end in a position that would place us before the #28 block, where the longest ladder on the board would advance us closer to the finish, onto the #84 block. In this way, despite repeated retreats toward the bottom of the board, we would be optimally positioned and hopeful to potentially land on the #28 block, to advance quickly on the board toward the finish. 

 

Interestingly, the three chutes at the top of the board landed on several blocks that preceded the #80 block, which contained a ladder leading you to the finish. 

 

You can see where my mind was at – getting to the finish. My son was thinking the same thing, as he innocently skipped spaces and rode up the ladders trying to rise to the top.

 

This was a game. As I settled into the rhythm of the game, I came up with my own interpretation of the chutes and ladders. It was interesting how the chutes and ladders were positioned just so. With the lens I was choosing to use, I saw the chutes as almost inevitable obstacles, but followed by the possibility of recovery through strategically placed ladders on the board.

 

This interpretation made me think about life (big surprise!) and it made me wonder about the inevitable and unexpected challenges that most of us will face in one way or another, and how these so often feel like setbacks. Well, it is up to us to decide whether we will interpret something as a setback or not, but even if we take that as truth, what if we could anticipate, and even create, the ladders that will raise us up? What if we could have faith, while in the toughest part of these setbacks, that these ladders exist and are available, as long as we are willing to find them?

 

Well, then I learned another lesson too --- because today when we played the game we rarely ever landed on a block with a ladder. It was relentless. Then what saved us in the end? The spinner. As long as we kept spinning, we kept moving, Eventually as I made it to the finish first, my son pouted and nearly started to cry. I had decided ahead of time that I wouldn’t fake a loss. He had to learn to handle occasional losses in life and look beyond the win. So just as I landed on the “sun” as he calls it, I gathered up my energy and gave him a pep talk and cheered him on to keep spinning the spinner. And wouldn’t you know it – he kept spinning 1s, 2s, and 3s… It took him a while, but he started smiling and laughing and picking up energy as we moved his piece a few spaces at a time. Somehow he managed to avoid the chutes in the last stretch of the game, and yes, he too made it to the end. And he was so happy.

 

When in life you think that there is nothing else left, sometimes you just have to decide to keep spinning. 

 

This evening, out of curiosity, I quickly looked up the game’s history on Wikipedia, and noted it was actually an ancient Indian game of Snakes and Ladders called Moksha Patam, meant to teach children lessons in morality, where the game itself was a journey through life, and the snakes and ladders associating with various vices and virtues, respectively. As I looked at the gameboard that we had played on earlier that day, I noticed how the boys and girls were similarly depicted being “naughty” or performing “good” deeds. This point of the game was not important to me, but it stood out to me that after years of familiarity and playing this game, that element of the game had never occurred to me. I had just missed that detail. 

 

And so I come to my final conclusion, that in the game of life, it may be more important and interesting to pay attention to the details along the way, than to create a monotonous journey of spin after spin to the finish.